We see this question asked all the time: “can someone be allergic to essential oils?”
There is so much misinformation all over the internet online that we thought you would appreciate hearing the truth straight from the mouth of our favorite pharmacist, Lindsey Elmore.
I strongly encourage you to listen through the video. I know there is a lot of medical terminology, but Lindsey is fantastic at breaking it down in a simple to understand manner.
Can Someone Be Allergic To Essential Oils?
Don't want to listen to the video? Then feel welcome to scroll down and read…
Can people be allergic to essential oils?
This is one of the most common questions: do essential oils cause allergies.
Allergies often get a bad reputation because when most people think about allergic reactions, they tend to think of anaphylaxis and severe life-threatening allergic reactions.
There are more allergic reactions that can happen and made worse by using essential oils, plants, natural products, metals… etc:
- skin irritation
- skin sensitization
A lot of times the problem lies with specific essential oil constituents, not the whole essential oil itself.
What is an allergy?
An allergy is an abnormal reaction to an ordinarily harmless substance. Your body sees the allergen as an invader and attacks it. This doesn't mean a massive hypersensitive reaction (though it is a type of reaction). This isn't caused by essential oils expect for very isolated cases (more on that in a moment).
The hypersensitivity reaction is caused by our bodies over reacting and producing histamines. This can result in ezcema, rashes, hives, severe asthma.
Have essential oils caused this type of hypersensitive reaction? No. No whole essential oil has been scientifically proven to cause these reactions. HOWEVER, some constituents have. There have only been 2 anaphylactic reactions to fragrance molecules… one by a nurse who was attacked by a patient with an unidentified fragrant perfume.
Type II (b-cell hypersensitive immunity) and Type III (proteins cause immune complexes) reactions that are very uncommon, and none of them have been associated with an essential oil.
Type IV allergic reaction is where you're first exposed to a substance and nothing happens… but over time, you build up a type of immune response to it so the next time you're presented with the same thing, you end up having some sort of an immune response. Type IV hypersensitive response, you're most likely to only gain a response from the same exact site with the same exact exposure. Essential oil may cause this (otherwise known as sensitization). This is the same type of hypersensitivity that can be caused by poison ivy, heavy metals, cleaners…etc.
So an essential oil, mostly ones heavy in terpenes, can bond with a protein in your body to cause this sensitization.
What is the best way to avoid this type of allergic reaction is to dilute your essential oils. Remember your essential oils safety information, and don't put them on your body without using a carrier oil!
Can essential oil allergies cause headaches or migraines?
Essential oils may cause headaches if you're not using them properly. But if you're not already someone who suffers from migraines, essential oils won't likely just cause a migraine or tension headache in normal concentrations.
If you get a headache straight away from smelling an essential oil, there is no scientific data that shows an essential oil may cause that. This is more often an emotional reaction caused by previous emotional trauma that needs to be healed.
Can watery eyes be an allergic reaction to essential oils?
You can have a watery eye reaction if there is too much essential oils being diffused, depending on the essential oil. Generally this needs to be HIGH concentrations. Most of the time this reaction is an emotional response from bottled up emotions.
What about repeated skin reactions to essential oils?
Psychological or acute stress plays a very important role in dermatitis and skin sensitivity. Yes, stress can change the functioning of the lipids in your skin. This triggers a small reaction to a substance that is normally safe and can turn it into a huge reaction. Stress reduces your skin's barrier functioning, and combined with a primed immune system ready to respond. So when you're more stressed, you're going to have larger reactions. Plus your nerves are already inflamed when under stress, your nerve sensitivity is also heightened to pain.
Weather may also play a role. Some times of the year you may be more likely to have a topical reaction.
Who is at risk for allergic reactions with essential oils
- Long-term stress
- Acute stress
- Chronic stress
- Women (3 times more likely to experience skin sensitivities compared to men)
- Poor diets
- Phototoxicity (citrus and cumin oils being applied topically, then exposing the same location to sunlight or UV light)
- Toxin exposure
- Autoimmune and genetic
- Children under 3 months
- Women 20-60 during fertility and hormonal fluctuations
Sometimes reactions may take 2-3 days to show. For example… if you end up applying oils on your skin that are potentially phototoxic, the sunburn-like rash could show up right away or a few days later.
Photoallergy, phototoxicity, and photosensitivity with essential oils
Photoallergy is a very rare type of allergy when your skin reacts with UV light, but doesn't change color.
Phytotoxicity is much more common. This happens a LOT with applying citrus oils on your skin, and then exposing that area of skin to UV light (sunlight). This looks and feels like a sunburn. You can see more about these oils over on our post about the 12 rules fro using essential oils safely.
Phytotoxicity reactions happen slowly. It could take 2-3 days for the sunburn to show up.
** Just a note… quality companies who make personal care products using phototoxic oils will have the constituents removed that cause photosensitivity or phytotoxicity.
Other ways essential oils may cause adverse skin reactions
Very old oils or oils that weren't stored properly may also increase the risk for skin sensitivity.
Ylang Ylang and lemongrass often get a bad reputation for being harsh on your skin… but they typically won't cause any reactions unless you have dermatitis (or underlying dermatitis even if you can't see it).
Summary of Essential Oils Causing Allergies
If you're using properly diluted, high quality, whole essential oil, you have only a 0.9% chance of any type of an actual reaction. (Versus 11% chance to reacting to synthetic fragrances or oils diluted with solvents)
The most studies done about essential oils are isolated constituents from essential oils and generic essential oils that may or may not be true essential oils. Many were synthetic. You can read more about those common practices over on our finding quality oils page.
ALWAYS dilute essential oils with a carrier oil (NOT WATER) before applying them topically.
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